A Sermon at St. Paul’s, Ossining, NY November 10, 2013
Our Gospel lesson today isn’t really about marriage or about the resurrection, either. This story is set during the last week of Jesus’ ministry, after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (also known as Palm Sunday). Jesus is teaching in the temple and there is a series of scenes of controversy with different groups trying to catch Jesus out with awkward questions—just before today’s lesson is the story where they come up to Jesus and ask him, “Do we pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
So these Sadducees are trying to score points by putting forward this theological hard case. Levirate marriage, where a childless widow is required to marry her late husband’s brother, is culturally very distant from us today. I’m not aware of any Christian sect that has ever practiced it, and even among orthodox Jews, it is really only recognized through a ceremony to be exempted from it. Judging from the history of the Talmudic interpretation of this law, levirate marriage probably seldom occurred even in the time of Jesus and the Sadducees, though the Sadducees disappeared by the end of the first century and we know little about their actual practices. They were a sort of aristocratic, conservative group that only accepted the first five books of the Bible—they believed in the temple which they controlled, but not in the resurrection, which they didn’t. So they are using their understanding of the Bible and a ridiculous case to show up Jesus in a theological absurdity.
Some of you may notice that the question is posed as a property dispute: “Who will this woman belong to?” But Jesus doesn’t bite. He says, “In this age people marry and are given in marriage, but [in the resurrection] they are children of the resurrection and children of God.” Things are different, like the angels of God…this is where literal-minded people pick up the idea of going up to heaven and having wings and a harp and so on, but that is really not what Jesus is getting at. Jesus is not describing heaven here—in fact there is nothing in our experience that is “like” the resurrected life in God. People like to make God follow rules, and the rules somehow end up looking like the parts of culture that give advantages to the people who are asserting those rules. Good luck with that.
The freedom of God is to define life, and to define the life of the resurrection. In God’s freedom the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is always messing up things that way, especially our rules and our expectations. He brings new life, life that is not held within the boundaries of death or limited by the expectations that we have for ourselves or that we accept from those around us.
It is easy enough to see how limited the Sadducees in this story were—the rules that they based their question on were really obsolete, even at that time. And today, their question, to translate the Greek literally: “In the resurrection, to which of these men does the woman belong?”, implies a relation that at least some of us would not think of as heavenly, or even workable in our society. Like them, we want to know, and to have clear rules, but instead, Jesus brings us possibility. The prophet Haggai spoke to the people of Jerusalem in its desolation, after they returned from the exile in Babylon, to find the Temple destroyed: “Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord of hosts…My spirit abides among you, do not fear.” The resurrection destroys both arrogance and demoralization and replaces both with hope and possibility. The life that is not stopped by death or even hindered by the horrors of the cross is the foundation of imagination and creativity. Each time that his opponents challenge Jesus, he responds in a way that points to generosity, courage, and selflessness—that is, toward an abundant life of freedom.
As our psalm for today says:
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
In righteousness shall he judge the world, and the peoples with equity.”